What to eat: Voice of the people

voice of the people

A new study of how consumers choose where and what to eat packed some surprises for the researchers who compiled it.

“Determining what’s for dinner was once a simple decision, but today consumers’ path to the plate is chock full of intricacies,” says Colin Stewart, senior vice president at Acosta Sales & Marketing, the sales and marketing agency that conducted the research in collaboration with Technomic Inc.

“As factors such as family and friends, convenience and value intersect with the exponential growth of meal solutions, diners are influenced by overlapping and interrelated variables at every meal,” explains Stewart.

Technomic, a research and consulting firm that specializes in foodservice, sees two broad variables that add up to new challenges. 

“Our research indicates dining decisions are both situational and budget-driven,” says Bob Goldin, executive vice president at Technomic. “Without a common path across consumer groups, it’s more challenging than ever for foodservice operators to compete. However, by better understanding diners’ key behaviors, operators can not only maintain but grow their share of the plate.”

At FoodService Director, we’re also curious about what drives the decisions your customers make about dining. So, after reporting on operators’ perceptions of what their customers want (Which Flavor Is Your Customer?, October 2014) we decided to ask customers directly.

We reached out to a handful of diners at each of five different foodservice operations in discrete parts of the country. We asked them where they like to eat, and why; what influences their dining decisions; what they like about their company’s or institution’s dining facilities and what they’d like to see more of. We hope their insights will help readers grow their share of the plate.

Florida Blue, Jacksonville, Fla.

If there is a commonality among employees who eat at this business-and-industry facility, it would be the desire for customization and personalization. Jay Farley, an executive assistant with the Florida Blue Foundation, is a perfect example. Farley, who eats in the DCC 100 cafeteria, says he prefers the deli station “by far, for two specific reasons. First, it’s quick, fresh and customized to your liking. Second, it’s having Miss Anita and Miss Valerie making it for you. These dedicated ladies have a knack for lifting one’s spirit in the middle of a busy, hectic work day.”

Farley says when he dines out, he is a creature of habit, visiting a regular group of eateries depending on his desires for “either healthier fare or taste-specific cravings, such as for barbecue.” He also lists his dining drivers, in order, as nutrition, price and travel, with fast casual being his favored type of restaurant.

Rebecca Westbrooke, senior manager for employee engagement, is another customer who places emphasis on nutrition when she dines.

“I prefer independent restaurants to chains, all things being equal,” Westbrooke says. “Nutrition and interesting food choices are important. I enjoy lots of different foods, so variety is key. I enjoy a nice atmosphere in a mid-level restaurant with a variety of healthy choices.”

Westbrooke, who says she eats breakfast and lunch at Florida Blue about three times a week, frequents the salad bar—“it’s quick, nutritious and easy”—and occasionally orders wraps. She also is a fan of Anita at the deli station: “I like the sandwich line because Anita rocks.”

Sourcing manager Ron Johnson says he’s a fan of customization, and appreciates operators who go the extra mile. “I don’t consider myself a foodie, but I won’t eat fast food or at restaurants I feel don’t go above and beyond,” he says. “At breakfast [I choose] the grill for made-to-order omelets [because] I can control the ingredients. At lunch it’s typically the deli or the salad bar. It’s the same reason: It’s simple food done well, but I can control the ingredients.”

John Troy, a network engineer, is another employee who doesn’t think he’s a foodie. But he may be selling himself short.

“I like to look for new places whenever possible to experience different dining atmospheres and cuisines,” he notes. “I watch the Food Network almost every day. These shows definitely influence my decision to look for different places to eat or [food to] try at home.”

Troy would classify himself as a healthy eater who occasionally indulges.

“The salad bar is the best for me, especially for eating healthy,” he explains. “There’s no extra salt, sugar or sauces and I know exactly what’s in there. Plus, it’s a good way to trim the calories if there’s a decision to eat out for dinner.”

Kathleen Zwart, who handles corporate meetings and travel services, is a very practical, and thrifty, shopper when it comes to food or restaurants. She says she often chooses a restaurant “based on whether I have a coupon or discount.” She’s also a fan of healthy food and healthy—as in smaller—portions.

“One thing we’ve started doing the last few years is ordering three or four appetizers and splitting them as our main course, rather than ordering two entrees that are too big, have too many calories, etc.,” she says.

Zwart adds that she doesn’t eat in the café often because “my willpower is weak, and if I go to the café I’m sometimes tempted to buy something that isn’t the best choice for me or to spend more than I really want to.” Her station of choice is the salad bar “because I can take as much or as little as I want and choose exactly the ingredients that I like.”

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